Michelle Obama inspired Richelle Shaw to be a better mother. The future first lady gave LaTonya Brown hope that she can find a husband. And Tina Sutton recites “We are Michelle Obama” with her 4-year-old daughter every morning.
For black women across the country, Obama is a new role model, a woman who defies stereotypes in a public way they say they have not seen since the fictional Clair Huxtable of “The Cosby Show.”
Sutton, 35, is using the future first lady to help teach her daughter to be secure in herself.
“I am comparing her skin to Michelle's,” she said. “I talk to her about her tall mother and father and that she will more than likely be tall. That is so appealing, just like Michelle. Her mother is married to a handsome, good black man, just like Michelle and Barack.”
Never miss a local story.
Much has been said about the president-elect's breakthrough as the nation's first black president. But for many women, Michelle Obama is an equally important addition to the national stage.
It's not just the Ivy League degrees, high-profile job and beautiful family that make Michelle Obama such an inspiration, they say. It's the way she seems so normal despite all that.
“She can connect with everyday folks and talk about everyday issues,” said Kumea Shorter-Gooden, co-author of “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women.”
Black women across the country say they expect Obama's dark skin will inspire girls and women to feel better about themselves. Her workout habits may inspire others to get in shape. And the Obamas' intelligence may stop the teasing that some black children endure for being smart, said Maya Rockeymoore, 37, a political scientist in Washington.
Sutton, of Virginia, isn't the only mom using the Obamas to teach their children valuable lessons. Shaw, 41, said because of Obama she is giving her 3-year-old daughter more of her undivided attention. She watches how Obama interacts with her daughters.
“She's a loving and caring individual,” said the Las Vegas mother. “I can see it every time she hugs her daughters.”
Cheli English-Figaro, 45, a mother of three in Bowie, Md., said she uses the Obamas to reinforce her message that with education and hard work, they can be anything.
And Obama also gives hope to single black women, said Brown, 39, an executive assistant in Atlanta. The Obamas have been married 16 years.
Those factors may explain why Michelle Obama is resonating with black women in a way that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice never did.
People didn't feel they could relate to Rice, in part because she didn't let people inside her personal family life, said Joyce Ladner, 65, a black sociologist in Sarasota, Fla.
Her policies also didn't mesh with most African Americans. And for the most part, she situated herself outside the mainstream black experience, said Jill Nelson, author of “Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown-up Black Woman.”
“I think Michelle Obama is very comfortable situating herself within that experience,” she said.
Many black women hope the Obama effect changes the way they're represented in popular culture.
Most people don't know black families like the Obamas, even though those families are out there, said Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, director of African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt.
“So often in the mainstream media, our families are depicted as broken, and we are seen as statistics and not as humans,” said Rockeymoore.
Still, in many ways Michelle Obama is an exception – and not because she is headed to the White House.
Black women are among the least likely to marry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2007 American Community Survey. And black men have high dropout, unemployment and incarceration rates.
Whether the Obamas, with their two young daughters, can change racial perceptions is unclear. There were some cringe-worthy moments in press accounts from the campaign trail (remember the “terrorist fist bump” and “Obama's Baby Mama?”)
Many white people still see successful, extremely bright and accomplished black people as exceptions, said Shorter-Gooden.
“So the white person is able to say, ‘There are black people; then there's Michelle,'” she said. “I don't expect that to go away entirely.”
But for a generation of women and their daughters, Obama represents a new kind of public role model: One who doesn't have pale skin or an attitude, but simply is who she is.
“She is so much like us, or who we want to be,” said Nelson.
Or as Brown put it: “She's just a cool chick.”